Presentation Techniques to Capture Attention

For all of us nowadays – from the experienced marketing director delivering a strategy presentation to the board with affected nonchalance, to the fresh-faced sales executive nervously delivering his first pitch – presenting is now a kind of second trade, a skill to be called upon at short notice as though it came naturally.

Happily, like any other trade there are secrets.

To keep your audience’s eyes off their Blackberrys and on you, here are a number of simple, psychological techniques that will work whatever your natural level of confidence or propensity for anecdotes and standup. Assuming your audience is human (not always the case with annual financial reviews), these fundamental principles will have them nestling in the palm of your hand for the full twenty-five minutes. Amateurs ignore them at their peril.

Multi-sensory Presentations

The temptation to litter a presentation with bullet points is strong, so strong it has dominated presentation strategies for over a decade. Creating neat cue cards gives the presenter a quick fix to presentation jitters, a reason to avoid rehearsing, and the deluded belief that the presentation is somehow more clean or succinct for all those neat headings. Not only are bullet points self-explanatory (which, unhappily, reduces the presenter’s role to ‘irritant’), they are also processed by the same element of working memory that processes the presenter’s narrative – the Phonetic Loop. This is what is commonly misunderstood about bullets – they are not a visual medium.

The presenter who uses bullets is essentially delivering two streams of information to the same cognitive faculty in the listener’s brain, and it is hard work to separate the information in the bullet point from the information in the narrative. In the face of this confusion, the listener disengages or, if really motivated, has to choose one or the other. It’s like trying to read the Yahoo news headlines about Michael Jackson while the CNN coverage is blaring away on TV – even though the ‘message’ behind both streams is the same, neither can be properly absorbed.

The alternative is to build slides that don’t work as cue cards at all, but provide visual cues for the information. Slides that use images and diagrams which truly complement (rather than repeat) the presenter’s narrative allow dual-encoding – simultaneous neurological stimulation of the Phonetic Loop (which processes sound) along with the Visuo-Spatial Scratchpad (which processes imagery). The result? Heightened attention levels, quicker understanding of the information, and more of the message passing into long-term memory.

Incomplete Sequences

Creating a slide that shows an incomplete or unfinished sequence of information strongly motivates an audience to pay attention to the presenter. The audience is initially intrigued by an incomplete picture or sequence, and then captivated when the presenter uses animation (to build up the slide and gradually resolve the picture) and narrative (to further explain the changes the audience is seeing on the screen).

This is a psychological technique called Visual Cognitive Dissonance. It commands attention by exploiting the Reticular Activating System (RAS) in the brain, the cognitive agent that searches for resolution to incomplete sequences. RAS has a particular appetite for puzzles like Sudoku and crosswords, and becomes hyperactive (not altogether unpleasantly) when confronted by certain types of abstract art. But savvy presenters can use VCD to their advantage, to over-stimulate RAS and force attention levels up, subsequently increasing the amount of information that is assimilated and that can be recalled long-term.

Neurology Vs Culture

The power of activating and stimulating these core neurological aspects or subconscious impulses can clearly be seen with human reactions to colour. Use of colour can create strong neurological reactions – for example red is consciously and subconsciously associated with danger, creating associations with blood, whilst green, located on the opposite side of the colour spectrum is recognised as a complimentary colour. In presentations therefore, both colours can have a simple yet powerful impact on the attention and understanding of an audience; the meanings of green ticks and red crosses are easily recognised and easily distinguished from long distances.

But beware of cultural differences; in the Far East red is considered a colour of prosperity and good fortune; most banks and financial institutions have red logos (and red PowerPoint templates!). Black, often used elegantly in Western designs, is strongly associated with misfortune and death. Know your audience before committing to the use of colour to evoke specific emotional responses.

Understanding basic subconscious principles of perception, and working with them, can yield a high impact without a huge amount of additional effort. Something as simple as standing on the correct side of the screen when delivering a presentation can also determine how effectively you engage with your audience. In the Western world, where we are used to writing and reading horizontally from left to right, the human eye moves in a natural Z formation, from left to right, then in ‘carriage return’ action down and left, and right along the next line. Therefore if the presenter stands to the left of the screen or projection, the audience’s eye will move very naturally from the presenter, to the screen and back to the presenter before returning to the screen for clarification.

Again, make sure you know your audience. Arabic speakers will find it more comfortable to move their eyes from right to left, so the presenter should stand to their right of the screen. Similarly, a Japanese audience used to reading Kanji will find it more comfortable if the presenter is on the right. This simple consideration allows the audience to engage visually with the presenter before and in tandem with each slide without effort or distraction.

So, whether you are the smooth experienced marketer or the nervous novice, mastering these most basic of techniques are an important first hurdle in delivering a killer presentation. They are not about content, they are not about style and they are not about confidence. They are about understanding basic human nature and arming yourself to control your audience’s focus, maximise their attention level and ensure that your presentation is recalled. It may be science, but it’s definitely not rocket science.

Harry Wilson
Harry Wilson
Harry Wilson is the Founder & Managing Consultant at Convinced.

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